Books: The view from eastern Europe on restitution

These essays emanate from a series of Polish conferences


Since 2002, the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw has held conferences and seminars on the international displacement of cultural artefacts due to war and shifting borders.

This interesting volume presents selected texts and speaker discussions from two such meetings in 2002, the first, focusing on displaced European cultural assets, held in Warsaw; the second, held in Kazimierz Dolny, discussing displaced Polish cultural assets.

In an introduction, Krzysztof Pomian notes that “for some cultural property, World War II is not over yet”, and asks whether the recent renewed interest in restitution, especially of art, is only a historically-focused process intended to compensate for the past, or “the emergence of, possibly, a new world of the future” in which restitution will be internationally accepted as the right thing. Dr Pomian notes a “growing crisis” of “statist ideologies” since the mid-1970s, “when projects undertaken for the sake of a distant future” and the State as its “ultimate guarantor”, have lost their urgency in favour of resolving the present sufferings of individuals and groups. The latter, in many countries, has changed attitudes towards restitution of cultural property.

In “Restitution and the law”, Wojciech Kowalski reviews three main types of claims to recover displaced cultural property, distinguishing on legal and historical grounds the concepts of restitution, repatriation, and return. Stefan Turner discusses restitution from the owner’s and State’s perspective, noting that restitution “in kind”, by which a looting State is required to replace lost objects with its own similar property; though such restitution provisions were inserted in several European peace treaties of 1947, they remained a “dead letter” and were never enforced.

Other articles discuss Russian court proceedings in restitution claims, and claims by Ukraine for cultural property taken to Russia, Poland and Germany. Case studies focus on property lost from central and eastern Europe including Lithuania and Poland.

Throughout the volume, problematic translation can make for ambiguity or difficult reading. The texts nonetheless represent a laudable effort and shed light on central and eastern European thinking on the problem of restitution.